CRYSTAL RIVER — U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent has moved to block a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to tighten manatee protections in Kings Bay.
Nugent on Monday proposed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the agency from spending any money to finalize and implement the protection plan.
"I want to slow it down a second. Let's have some more input from county leaders," the Spring Hill freshman Republican said Wednesday.
Crafted after years of debate on protections for endangered manatees and increasing reports of manatee harassment, the plan includes specific interaction guidelines, the power to temporarily regulate boating activity or expand sanctuaries, and an end to the summer water sport zone.
Kings Bay, the only place that the Fish and Wildlife Service sanctions swimming with manatees, has areas of restricted speed year-round, but during the summer one stretch of the bay is open for personal watercraft and water skiers. In winter, when hundreds of manatees gather to warm themselves in the springs, stricter speed rules and no-entry sanctuaries are in effect.
Summer manatee populations have grown, and some animals have been struck and killed there. Swimmer and manatee safety issues prompted some local residents and a waterfront advisory board to recommend slow speeds year-round.
The Crystal River City Council, the Citrus County Commission and the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce voiced opposition. Others who ski in the sport zone said using Crystal River channel instead would be more dangerous.
Nugent said that, after sufficient input from county residents and leaders, if the rules proposed are deemed appropriate, he has no problem with that.
"I don't live there. They live there. They deal with all things related to manatees," he said.
In a series of public meetings, the Fish and Wildlife Service has heard input on both sides, and the public has supported the protection measures, said Pat Rose, executive director for the Save the Manatee Club.
"The record is replete with examples, and not just people reacting to a proposal by Fish and Wildlife, but voluntarily suggesting it as one of the highest and most important issues they should address," Rose said.
He said Save the Manatee, the local business community and local Fish and Wildlife officials have worked together for years to find a balance that would allow the swimming experience with manatees to continue. Nugent's amendment could have an unintended effect, he said, including a possible court battle.
Michael Lusk, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, worries that he will not be able to expand sanctuaries if another cold snap comes this winter, and that his officers would not be able to enforce rules protecting manatees from people who ride, chase and harass them.
Nugent said that if the agency needs emergency powers again, another order should be sought.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.